Girls’ active identities: navigating othering discourses of femininity, bodies and physical education

This post summarises my published work Hill, J. (2015) Girls’ active identities: navigating othering discourses of femininity, bodies and physical education, Gender and Education 27(6), 666-684. You can find the paper at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09540253.2015.1078875.

While all of the research and writing I did from my PhD studies tried to challenge the accepted, to complexify what we think we know about young people and their physical activity experiences, one of my favourite things about what my participants told me has made its way into this paper. Here, I talk about girls who are physically active – although they might not think of themselves as active. Girls being physically active is a challenge to the accepted for two reasons: the field talks so much about girls being inactive and disengaged in PE; and what counts as sport and physical activity, as a physically active body, and especially as a feminine appropriate physically active body are narrowly constructed so that girls who don’t ‘fit’ cannot see themselves in the images of ideal fit bodies. Ideal bodies can marginalise and other some girls.

For the girls in this paper, the ideal was not enough to put them off being active (unlike some of their peers who I talked about in other paper). However, they couldn’t entirely get away from discourses of gender that regulated them and a system of penalties and rewards for reinforcing or deviating from gender norms.

For instance, one girl Lucy was highly active in a range of team and individual sports. But she was beginning to moderate the types of activities she did to concentrate on ones that would help her attain a slender body, rather than continuing to develop the muscular body she had. She did this because she claimed that boys at school called her fat. She was punished for gender inappropriate activity and physicality.

Other girls enthusiastically took part in physical activity as long as the environment was right and they were surrounded by similar people, that is, girly-girls. Ayesha liked single sex PE where she could be with ‘just girls’ who ‘understood each other’. She also claimed that they didn’t have to act like tomboys in this setting. While she felt included, the question remains about how excluded tomboys might have felt in a setting that still reproduced gender regulation. Neither single sex or mixed classes intrinsically have the answer.

Girls here were othered by discourses of fatness, whiteness and femininity and I discuss ways of listening to girls’ voices on the struggle to challenge gender norms, call for equality and avoid surveiling/regulating other girls’ bodies. Girls and boys can be supported to identify and make sense of gender boundaries, acceptable gendered and racialised performances, and create discussion out of instances of diversity or regulation.

Abstract

Within physical education and sport, girls must navigate discourses of valued athletic and gendered bodies that marginalise or ‘other’ non-normative performances through systems of surveillance and punishment. The purpose of this paper is to share girls’ perspectives on how these discourses affected their gender performances and activity engagement. Students aged 13–14 in one ethnically diverse UK secondary school were invited to create a photo diary of the physical activities they engaged in. Photo-elicitation interviews in small groups followed. The girls positioned themselves as physically active but had to carefully manage their activity choices and gender performances in a single-sex physical education environment that regulated deviation from the fit, slender, girly-girl. Although the girls demonstrate the difficulty of resisting, they indicate moments of positioning themselves against norms that suggest the possibilities of shifting gendering processes. The paper points out the importance of listening to ‘other’ girls’ narratives in building positive physical education engagements.

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